Recording of March 1997: The Great Miles Davis Prestige Recordings Wes Phillips on the Sound

Sidebar: Wes Phillips on the Sound

The Miles box might just be the record of the year, a brash prediction for me to make on the third day of 1997—but, given the significance of this material, also practically a no-brainer.

Impressed by Miles's performance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival—and cognizant that their newly developed 12" LP had the potential to revolutionize the industry—Columbia Records executives recruited Davis to bolster their stable of jazz artists. There was just one problem: Miles was under contract to Prestige at the time. So Columbia and Prestige sharpened their pencils and worked out a compromise: Davis would fulfill his contract to Prestige by the end of 1956, but he would also be allowed to record for Columbia as long as the label didn't release any of his records until 1957. Thus Davis began an extraordinary year and a half of activity, recording all-star dates for Prestige, putting Round About Midnight and four other compositions in the can for Columbia, and, in two marathon sessions conducted in May and October, recording most of the material collected here.

The five Prestige records collected in this box are the narrative of a band—possibly the most influential band in modern jazz. The New Miles Davis Quintet shows some birthing pains. In retrospect, we can see the seeds of greatness, but the seams show, and Miles's choice of musicians puzzled many jazz aficionados at the time. Joe Goldberg, in his liner notes to Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, described the initial critical assessment of the Quintet as "a trumpet player who could play only in the middle register and fluffed half his notes; an-out-of-tune tenor player; a cocktail pianist; a drummer who played so loud that no one else could be heard; and a teen-age bassist." Listening to Coltrane practically blunder into his solos on The New Miles..., one can understand why people were puzzled by Miles's choices. Miles being Miles however, he wasn't limited only by what he'd already heard—he was hearing music yet to be.

And glorious music it turned out to be—Cookin', Relaxin', Workin', and Steamin' laid down the template for serious jazz for the rest of the '50s and the first half of the '60s. And then the band that shattered that mold was...Miles's next stable ensemble.

There are so many wonderful performances here: "My Funny Valentine" from Cookin'; "If I Were a Bell" from Relaxin'; "It Never Entered My Mind" from Workin'; and "When I Fall in Love" from Steamin' all rank as personal favorites, but they're emblematic of the melancholy, extremely intimate interplay that permeates the individual albums. And, while those last four discs were recorded in two extended sessions, they don't run together at all—each disc has been crafted into a satisfying set, giving the feeling of dropping in on the group at your favorite watering hole. (Considering that this was the dawn of the LP, that sort of conceptual programming was pretty prescient.) Not to mention that each song is brimming over with fresh melodic and developmental ideas. I take away something new every time I revisit these classics. (For more on these seminal sessions, see Robert Baird's assessment in this issue's "Recording of the Month.")

Analogue Productions has done a wonderful job with this reissue. They've reproduced each original cover and collected the five LPs into a luxurious box, emblazoned with a rich color portrait of Miles—reiterated in B&W on the cover of the enclosed booklet, which features a lovely essay by Bob Blumenthal, portraits of the musicians, and notes on the production of the LPs from Mastering Engineer Stan Ricker, Audio Systems Consultant Neil Muncy, Press Manager Rick Hashimoto, and Plating Engineer Gary Salstrom. The set is limited to an edition of 2500 pressings.

Keep in mind that the master tapes for these discs are 40 years old; by the time AcousTech got them, age had taken its toll. Adhesive from the splices had migrated onto the oxide, and the splices themselves were brittle—and, in some cases, stretched. Ricker had a time of cutting the lacquers, but only partially because of the aged masters. As he explains in the booklet, Davis's choice of a Harmon mute made for an unusually complex waveform, one that stressed the cutting head on the lathe beyond its limits.

Past experience with half-speed mastering—of which Stan is the acknowledged master—told him that he'd lose bass going that route with the equipment available at AcousTech. So he went to a really old solution: two-thirds$nspeed mastering. Mastering at 22.5rpm has been an option on many cutting lathes since the days when singles were king—after all, while 22.5rpm is two-thirds speed for LPs, it's half speed for 45s—and was developed to cut "hotter" singles for radio play. With the help of Krieg Wunderlich, an erstwhile co-worker at Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, Stan managed to slow down the Studer Mastering Deck's servo-motor capstan to the point where it was possible to do justice to Davis's muted horn—not to mention Coltrane's muscular sax.

The result is a set of records whose tonal richness is abetted by absolute clarity. I've never heard Davis's muted trumpet sound harmonically richer—nor, for that matter, have I heard Coltrane's sax bigger or more aggressive. Garland's piano has never figured more bell-like; the notes float unfettered in space, even given Van Gelder's relatively close-miked perspective. Yet none of the detail and precision detract from Mr. PC's big bass sound—he is as present and palpable here as I've ever heard him.

That said, there is a small problem that might drive some persnickety listeners nuts. There are drop-outs, some splices are audible, and in places the oxide is audibly damaged. This means that at least once per disc—and, in the case of Workin', quite a bit more than that—you will be pulled out of the world the Quintet created and reminded of the technology that is bringing them to you—and its limitations. How big a deal is that? It depends on your level of tolerance, of course. I'll put up with it gladly to have discs of this overall quality: The tapes are what they are, and I feel fortunate that Analogue Productions has gone to all the trouble to make this set available at all. Compared to the OJC pressings—or the Prestige CDs—the AP LPs sound far, far better. And, of course, they're records, which is how I want to hear these performances—think of it as an original instruments thing. With mint originals coming to market for $150 each, I couldn't afford them; $200 for this box actually begins to look like a bargain.—Wes Phillips

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